Carrie and Aidan are doing it but can ‘relationship recycling’ work in real life?
TV has a rule I like to call “Chekhov’s Love Interest”. If a serious paramour pops up in season one, they’ll likely be seen again at the very end – most probably running to the airport for a last-minute declaration of love before the show gets cancelled. According to most TV writers, this emotional payoff is only satisfying if the die is cast early on. Ross needs to end up with Rachel. Niles with Daphne. Carrie with Big. Josh Lyman with Donna Moss. These couples are set up early. When Ross decided to “grab a spoon” and ask out Rachel in the first episode of Friends, you just knew he’d get said “spoon” by the finale.
These canonical couples are choice examples of an endemic trend in TV of relationship recycling. Crushes last years. Couples endlessly break up and get back together. No one ever moves on. Life is a game of romantic whack-a-mole, where exes pop up constantly for amorous plot development. Proof of this enduring trend is the Sex and the City revival And Just Like That…, which will – in its forthcoming second season – bring back Carrie’s ex Aidan, an archetypal “nice guy” on whom she notoriously cheated during the original series. For anyone not keeping count, this will mark their third go at a relationship. But while all of this is fictional on TV, I couldn’t help but wonder if these shows have had an indelible effect on our real love lives. Have these rehashed plots made us think that the only relationships worth pursuing are the ones we’ve already had?
Sex and the City was a show that always had a reciprocal relationship with the culture it portrayed. It’s little wonder, then, that its audience tended to see themselves in its characters. There would be debates about which of the main quartet they were most like (“I’m a total Samantha” was heard at far too many early Noughties brunches); which of them had a Big, a Steve or an Aidan.
“I think that TV can absolutely have an impact on our own views of relationships, and Sex and the City in its prime was a great example of that,” says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the 2018 book Sex and the City and Us. “It taught us how to talk about sex and think about our own sex lives.”
Armstrong demurs when I ask if someone might consider getting back with an ex after watching the show, but understands why writers are always compelled to bring back former lovers. “A problem with a show about romantic relationships is that there are only two ways they can go – they end or they end up together,” she says. “Aidan is such a crowd-pleaser that even though he and Carrie broke up – and in my opinion definitely didn’t belong together – it’s natural to want to revisit him on screen. I think once they find a guy that they like and the audience seems to like, it’s hard to resist the temptation to bring them back.”
Journalist and author Sophia Money-Coutts says bringing back an ex may seem like a lazy plot device, but it fits an existing template. “With books, you pretty much have to introduce your romantic hero within the first five pages,” she explains. “Readers have to follow that journey, so there’s no point in them getting invested in a character that you meet at the beginning who’s never coming back.” So, Aidan’s return is narratively satisfying, then? Money-Coutts frowns. “Don’t get me wrong – I love Aidan, but it just feels a bit like, ‘Oh, that would never happen in real life, would it?’.”
Money-Coutt’s fourth novel, last year’s Did You Miss Me?, is, however, all about returning to a previous love. She tells me she’s fascinated by the idea of missed chances, and how one decision can alter the course of your life. What would happen if you went back and changed it? What if things could be different this time? “I think it’s nostalgia which draws us back,” she says, noting that people always look better in a rose-tinted, rear-view mirror. “We lust after the idea of someone and the memory of what we were [together] and we tend to forget all the boring, sensible parts of that relationship. We’re chasing a feeling that maybe doesn’t exist anymore.”
But isn’t that the stuff of lots of great novels and TV series? “Well, yes!” she says. “I know I always return to Sense and Sensibility as my template for romance – you may not get your Willoughby but there will be a Colonel Brandon somewhere… It’s a chicken-egg situation, isn’t it? Do they reflect us? Or are we chasing after these relationships because of what we see on screen and in books?”
Relationship counsellor Simone Bose tells me that many of her clients will see themselves in the romantic travails of fictional characters. It stems, Bose tells me, from the kind of storytelling we’re introduced to as young people – those fairytales and children’s films that inform our ideas of love and romance. It’s common to sanctify a previous partner – and particularly a first love – if they’ve come to represent all of those things for you. “It’s easy to start believing that this person was the love of your life or your soulmate,” she says. “And it can be really hard to let [it] go if there wasn’t a happy ending. All of the rational reasons you broke up disappear, and the romantic part of it takes over.”
Pining over an ex often becomes, then, a desire to figure something out. Why didn’t it work? What could we have done differently? Was it me? This certainly chimes with the character of Carrie – a woman who’s made a career of perennially asking questions about her love life. Aidan 3.0 may indeed be her latest quixotic inquisition. But does recycling a relationship actually work in real life? Bose says only if you actually do something differently in it.
“You have to do a lot of hard work and you’d have to take a lot of responsibility for your own actions,” she says. “Going back to an ex can be successful – I’ve seen it happen – but if you just do the same thing again, it won’t. You have to learn something from your first time around or the second is doomed.”
Often, she adds, a second stab at love can even be psychologically useful, whether it ends in wedding bells and dashes to the airport or not. “Sometimes you have to go back to know that it doesn’t work, or to get a sort of closure. If we can find meaning in why something ended, it’s easier to get over it.”
Perhaps a whole new generation of women will be looking at their exes anew after Aidan returns this summer. But would he and Carrie work in the real world a third time around? After all, we all love an on-again-off-again relationship, don’t we? “In my professional experience,” Bose sighs. “I haven’t noticed that those turn out very well.” And just like that… maybe you shouldn’t call up your ex.